Properties of primer recognition by purified human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) reverse transcriptase (RT) p66 homodimer have been investigated. Earlier studies had shown that RNA-directed DNA synthesis catalyzed by HIV-1 RT proceeds by an ordered mechanism in which template-primer combines with the free enzyme to form the first complex in the reaction scheme, and it was also shown that primer alone is a competitive inhibitor of template-primer. In this study, enzyme-primer binding has been further characterized utilizing pd(T)8 and pd(T)16 as model primers and UV cross-linking to covalently trap the enzyme-primer complexes. Competition experiments with several authentic primers, including tRNA(3Lys), indicate that pd(T)n binds to the kinetically significant primer binding site of RT. Salt reversal experiments suggested that the free energy of pd(T)n binding to RT has a large nonelectrostatic component. Binding of pd(T)n to p66-RT is not affected by dNTPs and does not require the presence of template. The site of UV cross-linking of pd(T)16 was localized to the NH2-terminal half of p66 by use of V8 protease hydrolysis and microsequencing. Our results indicate that a polynucleotide binding site is in close proximity to residues in the peptide comprising amino acids 195 approximately 300. This region could be either a single-stranded template or single-stranded primer binding site; however, we have documented the specificity of binding with oligonucleotides that act as primer in the in vitro DNA synthesis reaction. Therefore, this d(T)16 binding site may be part of a primer-binding groove within the HIV-1 reverse transcriptase.